No Plot? No Problem!

My early days of productive writing took place during a proliferation of what people fondly referred to at the time as “PWPs,” short for “Plot? What Plot?” The stories were thinly-veiled excuses for the two characters to get together and do the deed.

And I was good at them! I’m not going to stand on false modesty, here. I had mastered the art of getting two characters together through a variety of creative means–one memorable instance involving a gun and a shot to the head–then delving into the erotica and leading out with a moment either poignant or humorous, hopeful or lascivious.

Over the years, the enforced regimen of Nanowrimo after Nanowrimo, and developing certain skills through project management work, I got better at adding in plot. My focus gradually shifted to telling a larger story where two people getting together were a part, rather than the driving mechanism of the whole. Conflict existed, deeds were done, tension flourished, and the fabric of the plot consisted of more than the relationship weaving two people inextricably together.

Casual fiction can be a great method for learning how to tell overarching story arcs. I wrote a five-part original series, After the Rising, over the span of several years where I started out fumbling through a relationship story focused on three brothers, and somehow by the time it was done, told an epic tale about demons versus humans, and the battle for a particular artifact that could shift the balance of power between warring factions. Looking back through those masses and masses of words I wrote, I can spot a lot of flaws. There’s a drag in certain installments–the middle child suffers that most horrible fate where a great deal of words were wasted to cover very little ground. And by the second or third book I finally realized not everyone can be gay men. At least I got in some good, strong females who were there to do their jobs, and diversity was a part of the story from the first installment.

Overall that casual fiction effort can’t be considered a complete loss. It was compelling enough that one of my friends asked me to send them the entire series, to see if they could help me work it over into a shape approaching publishable. (After having been through the editorial process with seven manuscripts now, and currently engaged in two more, I can say that particular original series needs a lot of hard work before I’d submit it.)

At the core of it all, however, no matter what deeds take place and however strong the world-building of the places I envision, one thing I’ve realized is I am still, at the heart of it, telling stories where two characters get together and do the deed. And that means I will probably always be considered a romance author, and I’m good with that.

To me, that’s where a great deal of the interest, the joy of telling a story, lies. It’s not only the plot twists, or the clever mechanisms. The heart of the story, the part that I love reinventing with every new set of characters that I write, is taking these two people (or more, if there are multiple couples) and finding out who they are, and how they come together.

Two people meet, and there’s something in each of them that reacts to the other, whether that’s positive or negative. Subsequent encounters, or repeated exposure, bring out more tension, whether it’s personality or attraction-based. I love writing the unfolding relationship, and I’ve seen mixed reactions from authors on this next item, but I love to write the erotica. My sex scenes vary from light to detailed depending on the story and what’s happening with the plot, but I look forward to, and enjoy, writing that part of the story too. If I’ve made my characters (and the reader) wait for it, then everyone deserves the payoff for sure.

Stories, especially novels, can’t subsist on sex scenes alone, however. I did learn to plot my stories around the bones of the relationship, starting with my very first Nanowrimo back in 2002. Knowing that I was going into a thirty-day writing sprint, expected to come out of the other end with a 50,000+ word manuscript, and determined to succeed, I approached the project with my first-ever comprehensive outline. Prior to 2002, I’d completed novel-length works before, both fannish and casual original fiction endeavors, but my approach was completely laissez-faire, totally by the seat of my pants, and typically took months. I would start out writing with vague ideas, and found out more as I went along. I invented everything the story needed in terms of world-building or supporting characters on the spot.

That wasn’t going to work for an endeavor like Nanowrimo. I needed to have enough material planned so that I could write through each and every scene and get through the day having met my word count by the end of it. So I penned out my ideas for “Not Another Regency Romance,” roughing out a cast of characters and two romantic storylines unfolding side by side: May, the novel’s heroine, and her younger brother Tor, who incidentally fell for the older man who was intended to be May’s suitor.

It might not have been completely terrible? A good handful of people read it, and at least one person whose opinion I trust told me it was well-told and they enjoyed it. I never ended up editing or trying to submit it anywhere, because I didn’t think the story would have a market. Too gay for straight romance, too straight for gay romance, and I had no interest in editing out either of the romantic storylines. Those dual storylines were what really made the plot.

The important takeaway from that early effort was how to outline, and it gave me the confidence that I needed to continue with that format. 2002 was like a writing exercise in which I learned which parts of my outline to stick to, which to scrap for the sake of the story, and where I could improve upon it during the writing process, always allowing for inspiration or characters becoming so much more.

That’s how I write from my outlines, in the end. The outline is the framework that the story is built upon, but I’m free to change or tweak as needed, add extra characters when they’re called for, accommodate a dramatic twist when the opportunity presents itself, and let the story play out the way it wants to be written. Sometimes the characters surprise me, and I like it when that happens–if I can get caught up in writing it, hopefully others will get caught up reading it, too.

For Nanowrimo 2003, I dove into it with the same mindset, but started with an unfinished outline. Little did I know, once November was over and I’d turned out over 85,000 words, without an outline or a clear path to the end I would lose momentum. It took me nearly ten years to finish From the Inside Out. When it was accepted for publication, the epilogue got axed, and many of the storyline details changed during the editing process. I believe this is partly because my outline, penned back in 2003, was weak in plot and the relationship story I tried to tell wasn’t right for the characters I developed. Since then, in my meager opinion I think I’ve gotten better at those elements.

In terms of the outline process itself, I always start with the characters first. I have a general idea for a story, which I may or may not write down right away. I form an idea of the main characters in my head: what they look like, their personalities, what they do. I’ll often use actors as character bases, but not always. Sometimes their names come to me easily; other times, I do research based on ethnicity/nationality, personality traits, when they were born and what names were popular at the time, and personal preference. Once I have their names down, I commit that to paper or electronic file and start jotting down ideas about them. At this point of the brainstorming process, I may or may not rough out a general idea of the storyline itself. “Convergence” started out as “Indiana Jones with vampires,” so you can see I had a long way to go from there. In fact, my original short story idea for the Proud to be a Vampire call was going to be something else entirely, then instead of shifting the scene I’d mapped in my head to the end of the story, I realized as the characters developed that the scene in my head wasn’t the right part of the story to tell, at all. I developed an entirely new story from there–and it’s one I like a lot better. “Appetite,” which ended up a sprawling three-part tome, began its life as the teaser sentence “competitive chefs with a passion for cooking…and each other.” I start with building blocks, and the idea grows until I have to write it all down. Usually the story name comes in at some point during my outlining process. Sometimes, the name is a placeholder and I change it at the end. “Body Option” and “Fireborn” both had different working titles; I can’t even remember what the original titles were anymore.

Right now, I’m at the beginning stages of outlining two new manuscripts, and the process is so different for each of them! “My Sexual Superhero” is a short story I’ll be submitting for a fiction call. All I know about it, at this point, is the two characters get together at a club, and one brief encounter ends up turning into something more when they actually open up and start learning about one another. One of the main characters is tentatively named Jaden, but I might change it. His best friend is Marina. The other guy would be Chris if I hadn’t already named another character Chris, in Convergence. I have a snippet of dialogue already written, but that’s it! Oh, and I know what they look like.

…and I came back from lunch and “Not Chris” became “Felipe” and all my nascent ideas about him have changed, and I like him even better than my original concept for him. I have more ideas about where the story is going, but not how it ends.

The other manuscript I’m plotting is going to be my 2013 Nanowrimo, and I’m trying out “Dragonspire” and “Dragon’s Nexus” for WIP titles. After searching for novels titled the same or similarly, I’m sure I’ll scrap those and come up with something else. The three characters I’ve got so far are Gideon Stahl, intrepid photographer engaged in a major life change; Chrysania Vallorum, high priestess and princess of Callar-dune; and Echo Glaive, a powerful dragon whose actions threaten the livelihood of Callar-dune’s citizens. Tagline for the story is “Gideon went to save the maiden. He pledged himself to the dragon.” At this point, I’m concentrating on the world-building details while the general storyline comes together in my head. When I start outlining things scene by scene, that’s usually when a lot of things start to shake out into specific form and structure. For longer stories, I tend to decide early if there will be different “parts,” or story arcs, divide the outline into those sections, and work on those. I think that Dragonspire will be two parts, possibly three, but I don’t want it to be much longer than 100k altogether, because I want this to be a standalone fantasy work. That’s going to help dictate the complexity of the outline.

Once I have all the general pieces, I start writing scene by scene. This varies from extremely general–“Jaden goes clubbing with his friend Marina”–to very specific, with some scene-setting or world-building details that may get incorporated into the manuscript. I outline in a relatively linear fashion, but jot down bursts of inspiration as they come. Often, I know how the story will end before I have the middle nailed down, for example. Or I’ll get a scene in my head that takes place in the story, and I write it all down and figure out a place for it when I’m going through the linear plotting.

Ultimately, most stories can be deconstructed to a single element: conflict, and resolution of the conflict. Whether that takes place as relationship conflict, or external conflict through opposing forces, it’s all up to the author and what they want to achieve, and how they want to get there. Some people work best when they jump right in with those vague ideas, and work their way through it during the writing process. For me, the story works better when I start with those vague ideas, and work their way through it during the writing process. For me, the story works better when I start with the ideas and give them greater substance with the structure of the outline, however loose or detailed. We tell the stories we want to tell–the ones that want to be told. If you don’t have a plot at first, it’s not a problem. Put your characters down on paper, maneuver them into the same space together, and figure out what makes the sparks fly from there. Above all, don’t be afraid to experiment and find out what methods work best on an individual basis. I used to think that I had to have every single world-building detail figured out, and I was failing some criteria of being an author if I didn’t–then I discovered not everyone works that way! The great, fun, endlessly inventive thing about writing is that everyone does it differently. And we all find our best way.

4 comments

  1. Interesting, interesting ^__^ It’s always fun to see how every author works. I use outlines, but they’re vague and they change constantly and I’ll always be at my best when I am 80% figuring it out as a I go. Except with world building, I am insanely anal retentive about that. I spent five hours today figuring out names/ages/other information on a host of characters that are mostly background, just because I need to be absolutely certain that my past will mesh with my present (since In Despair story takes place 20-some years before Of Last Resort, and With Pride is three years before Last Resort, so I have all kinds of headaches going on).

    My stories are all provoked by different things. The concept of vampires in Princes of the Blood provoked all of that. wanting to write enemies to lovers, and muck with magic by way of drug, provoked Prisoner. Lost Gods started with an image of Taka and Raiden arguing.

    I think the hardest part of writing fantasy is not to overkill with the world buliding. I have ridiculous amounts of it, and it can be tricky figuring out how much needs to go on the page and what is just stuff I need to know.

    And I am your polar opposite re: smut. I’d much rather write the arguing and the angsting and the Everything Goes to Shit parts. I’ve been stalling on one story because the next scene up is smut and I’m not in the mood to write it ^^;; It took me for fucking every to get around to writing the smut that comes up in the next chapter of Throne.

  2. I think it’s really interesting to see how other author’s structure (or not structure) their writing. Everyone has their own way of writing, and it’s nothing alike my way at all. So yes, interesting post, Talya. ^_^

  3. Thanks very much for posting this. ๐Ÿ™‚

    It made me think about my own process – which is mainly getting one thought or scene caught in my head and seeing where it takes me. I outline after a certain point, and I can come up with a complete story; I also love going back and filling in the story with research and semi-obscure side references and such.

    I also know I have the *ability* to do NaNo – my first year of doing MiniNaNo got me to just over 60% of the real thing – but my process doesn’t work under those conditions. I run out of steam fairly fast in that short timeframe and end up doing bits and pieces of various stories; so if I’m ever going to do the real Nano, I’m going to have to change things up a bit.

    A lot of the process of writing seems to be figuring out your *own* process, and developing it so that it works for you. I’m at a point where I want to try a few different things, see where I can take them – and a good part of that will likely involve revamping how I do them. So it’s nice (and a little faster :D)) to bounce around ideas, see some things to try, recognize where some of the personal weaknesses might be.

    And I enjoy reading your stuff, anyway. ๐Ÿ˜€

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